From the early 1920s to the end of that decade, taking in a movie was a unique and wondrous experience. Going to the picture show became a regular ritual for many Americans who went to the cinema three or four times a week. Radio was still going through growing pains and television, digital gaming and the Internet were years away.
For those who lived in large American cities, twenty-five cents was a magic carpet that transported them from their dreary lives to a world of unparalleled opulence, the movie palace. The furnishings in these temples of excess were as sumptuous as those in the court of the Czar. Everywhere one turned were crystal chandeliers, marble fountains, gilt inlay and richly upholstered seats. The ushers wore smart uniforms and there was often a live musical prelude accompanied by the theater’s orchestra. Movie actors had dropped the histrionics of old for a subtle pantomime and the camera moved with amazing fluidity. This was the film experience at its best.
The term ‘silent film’ is a misnomer; silent films were never silent. The grander palaces used full symphonic orchestras to accompany their movies. Film historians like Preston J. Hubbard have written extensively about the impact live musical performances had on American cinema in the 1920s. For theaters that couldn’t afford an orchestra, the mighty Wurlitzer organ became a staple and made every sound effect under the sun. Smaller movies houses accompanied their silent dramas with pianos. In areas with large immigrant populations, young girls would translate the title cards into Yiddish, Italian or Russian as a piano accompanied them. In Japan, an actor called a benshi would narrate the film with a group of musicians playing under him.
In October 6, 1927, the success of The Jazz Singer, a Warner Brother’s a half-silent, half-talking musical signaled the beginning of the end of silent films and that wonderful experience - but just how rapid was that transition?
Donald Crafton began his book, The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926 - 1931, by addressing the biggest misconception of the transition to sound, namely that it was rapid and completely disrupted the movie making process. Nothing could be further from the truth. The transition took years to take effect and was a much slower process than many film historians have suggested.
Crafton opened The Talkies with an in-depth critique of the one film that tackled the changeover from silent films to talking pictures, 1952’s musical classic, Singing In the Rain. Singing In the Rain presented a whimsical vision of the transition. The movie is set in Hollywood in the late 1920s, during the time of flappers, the Charleston and prohibition. The Jazz Singer creates a worldwide sensation and within a couple of weeks the fictional studio, Monumental Pictures, easily converts their stages to accommodate sound. Miraculously, producers are able to deliver talking pictures to theaters around the country despite the fact most were not yet wired for sound. The director of the Dancing Cavalier, the film within the film, effortlessly shoots a motion picture with the same grace and fluidity as a silent drama. While everything works out beautifully in Singing in the Rain, the reality of the conversion to sound was far more complex. It was a matter of years rather than weeks.
One of the early issues with talking dramas was the question of what method would be used to deliver sound to movies. Like the early battles in video, BETA verses VHS, there were two competing sound technologies, both from upstart studios; Warner Brothers had Vitaphone and the Fox Film Corporation had Movietone. Though Jack, Albert, Sam and Harry Warner didn’t realize it, their process, Vitaphone was doomed from the start. Vitaphone recorded the sound on a separate wax disc and left it to the projectionist to synchronize the sound with the film. That was a formidable enough task, but there were other problems. The discs would break, scratch, were often misplaced and most importantly, were unusable after twenty screenings, effective making the movie a silent drama. Since the sound was already pre-recorded, local censors couldn’t cut out offensive dialogue which was problematic since many early talkies were peppered with saucy dialogue.
The other process, Movietone, recorded the sound directly to the strip of film used to make the motion picture. By 1928, Movietone became the preferred method but the changeover to talking pictures created a host of other problems.
While many in the audience were enamored with the thought of finally hearing the voices of their favorite actors, a large portion of the movie going audience loved the silent film experience, the live music, subtle acting and agile camera work and weren’t really interested in talkies.
RKO Radio Pictures made talking pictures from their inception in 1928, the Fox Film Corporation and Warner Brothers had vested interest in pushing their own sound technologies; however, the bosses at Paramount Picture Corporation, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and the “little three”, Columbia, Universal and United Artists, were certain that this new technology was just another way to deliver motion pictures. They all assumed that talking pictures would co-exist as a separate medium from silent dramas, i.e. talkies would be used to for musicals and stage plays and silent dramas for everything else. In fact, in the final quarter of the 1928-1929, of the 200 films released, the majority, 114 in total, were silent dramas. MGM decided to let everyone else take the plunge and delayed sound conversion until other studios had ironed out the kinks.
Another interesting creation, the hybrid film, would eventually bite the dust. Hybrids were odd ducks; some, like The Jazz Singer were half-talkie and half-silent. Others, including classics like Wings and Seventh Heaven, were silent films with synchronized effects and music. In a process known as ‘goat glanding’, previously filmed silent dramas were given new life with sound effects and a smattering of dialogue in some key scenes. In 1930, Universal re-released The Phantom of the Opera, re-shot scenes with the same cast as the 1925 original and added bits of dialogue and music. Lon Chaney’s silent footage from the original was used because he was negotiating his contract at MGM and wasn’t available.
After the novelty of talking films began to wear off, audiences tired of the hybrid. Except for some notable exceptions like Al Jolson’s The Singing Fool that held the box office record until Gone with the Wind and Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, the hybrid eventually went the way of the dodo.
The most common way to capture the movie audience was to make dual versions of one film - a talkie for theaters that were wired for sound, and a silent version of the same film for those theaters that weren’t. Large numbers of movies houses in rural areas and small towns throughout the country had not yet been prepared for sound. It was a costly process especially during the years of the Great Depression and many independent movie houses went under because they simply couldn’t afford the expense. In 1929, MGM announced that Greta Garbo’s The Kiss was their last silent but the studio continued making silent versions of talking films possibly as late as 1931.
Film historian, David B. Pearson, creator of www.silent-movies.com noted that modern film historians tend to exaggerate the number of theaters owned by the biggest of the big five studios, MGM. Paramount owned more movie houses and in some cities, Paramount actually co-owned some of MGM’s palaces. While MGM may have had the most square footage, the real power of a studio was ownership of the means of production, distribution and exhibition by the same company, also know as vertical integration.
Vertical integration began in the earliest days of cinema. The French film company, Pathé Frères, opened its first theater in Paris in 1906 and by 1909, owned and operated over 200. In the United States, vertical integration continued until late 1940’s, when a federal anti-trust suit forced studios to divest themselves of their theaters.
Probably the most vivid description of the transition to talkies can be found in David Stenn’s biography of Clara Bow, Runnin’ Wild. Bow was Paramount’s biggest star and Stenn wrote extensively about her baptism by fire into the world of talking pictures; however, he didn’t note that her early talkies had silent versions, many of which were superior to the talking original.
Even musicals like Showboat, Montana Moon, The Jazz Singer and The Singing Fool had silent versions. Garbo may have talked in Anna Christie, but it’s probable that there was a silent version of the film floating around. According to David B. Pearson, as late as 1930, the vast majority of talking films had silent versions.
1931 was probably the last year that silent dramas were produced en masse by major American studios but smaller, “Poverty Row” houses continued filming silent dramas for theaters that couldn’t afford to wire for sound. A silent version of Universal’s 1931 hit, Dracula was released in the spring of 1931. Though there is no mention of a silent copy of Frankenstein, a film released in the fall of 1931, it is probable that one existed since Universal catered to smaller movie houses. Pearson noted that Douglas Fairbanks filmed a part-talking hybrid called Mr. Robinson Crusoe in 1932 and also provided a completely silent version in the same year.
The creation of silent versions of talkies may have continued for considerably longer since European cinemas weren’t fully wired for sound until well into the 30s. The silent film tradition continued in Japan as late as 1935. The Warner Brothers musical, Footlight Parade, begins with an electric billboard circling a Manhattan building with the announcement that silent films were finally dead. Footlight Parade was released in October, 1933, a date that suggests silent dramas took a very long time to die.
Film historians have detailed the destruction of the careers of actors who didn’t make the transition to talkies but there were other behind the camera casualties. With the coming of the talkies, live performances called preludes, the major plotline of Footlight Parade, were pretty much eliminated too. There were other casualties. The members of American Federation of Musicians took out newspaper advertisements across the country protesting the replacement of live musicians with canned music. Scores of virtuoso muscians lost their livelihood in the transition.
Directors of silent films spoke continually as they guided an actor’s on-screen movements, gently coaxing out a performance. There were many silent directors who, after attempts at talkies, couldn’t or wouldn’t make the adjustment, D.W. Griffith being the most notable but there were others: Rex Ingram, actor/directors like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and Victor Sjöström being the most notable cases. The early sound technicians were tyrants on the set and in the early days of talkies, it was the sound technicians who yelled, “cut” not the director.
When studios stopped making dual versions of films, writers of title cards, the method used for years to tell the story and deliver dialogue, found their art to be obsolete. Featherweight Bell & Howell cameras used in silent dramas were replaced by bulky Mitchell sound cameras. Arc lights became obsolete because of their faint hiss and were replaced by silent tungsten lighting. Even the make-up used in film changed. After 1927, panchromatic film became the standard and Max Factor had to devise a different type of make-up that worked with sound lighting.
Talking pictures emerged as the dominant celluloid art form and went through their own painful growing pains with static scenes and stagy acting until 1932 when the movies finally moved again.
Thank you David B. Pearson for sharing of your knowledge of the transition to talkies with me. I found the following books helpful in writing this page: Donald Crafton, The Talkies: American cinema’s Transition to sound, 1926 - 1931, Donald Stenn, Clara Bow: Running Wild, Fred E. Basten, Max Factor: the Man Who Changed the Faces of the World, Mark E. Vieira, Hollywood Dreams Made Real, Irving Thalberg and the Rise of M-G-M.
www.silent-movies.com - one of the best resources on the web with new information added regularly.
www.georgegroves.org.uk- This site is dedicated to the creator of Vitaphone, George Grove.
www.midnightpalace.com - A great resource to find out more about Hollywood’s Golden Age, a term I don’t use lightly. 60 to 70% of the population went to the movies regularly as opposed to 9% now. It truly was golden.
www.goldensilents.com - A must for anyone interested in the silent era.
www.thestarlightstudio.com- A stunning site that features the photography of movie historian Mark A Vieira, the acknowledged expert on Irving Thalberg and M.G.M.